There are 27 books in the New Testament. Seven are letters that Paul did not write but later forgers did, for their own devotional or theological purposes. Four are anonymous, contradictory gospels, the work of non-eyewitnesses working by rumor and untrustworthy memory, works that later fools attributed to people close to Jesus out of the necessity of any theology they liked needing to be from such a lofty origin. Two are letters attributed to St. Peter; three are letters attributed to John the Apostle — the first two are forgeries, the second three guesstimate misattributions. (And the ancients didn’t think forgeries were a high okay mystical thing — well, maybe if they were forgeries of their own side.) All in all, just as sordid a stew as what has survived from the other sects and theologies that rose out of the indistinct shadow of the man called Jesus.
(Not atheist ranting, mind you: as I’ve understood it, this is what the majority of sober, serious historians of the subject think — though they call this pseudepigrapha because that gets less verbal abuse from pious old ladies.)
It pisses me off, hugely, that this is something I needed to find out on my own. Didn’t occur to anyone at school to tell; didn’t seem important enough to any priest, youth worker or popularizer I came across to mention; didn’t hear nothing (or at least can’t recall anything) before I was already an atheist, and started reading the like of Ehrman and Friedman on my own, out of pure poking curiosity.
It pisses me off, even more hugely, that people don’t seem to care about these things. Doesn’t it matter that the book a large fraction of the world looks at as the supreme collection of divine wisdom is… is a hodge-podge of theologies and ideologies, addition and redaction and fabrications and outright forgeries? Doesn’t it matter who said the quotes one spouts?
Never mind that the much-adored “cast the first stone” passage is a later addition — what matters is the “women are to keep silent in the churches” passage (1. Cor 14:33–35) is a later addition, not a word of Paul! Is it really better to keep quiet and hope people keep disregarding this bit of venom? Is it really better to mumble pious platitudes and circumlocutions of how Paul really wasn’t a misogynist, despite these difficult-to-interpret verses, when with a little bit of sacrilege one could stand up and say: “He didn’t say it! Fuck you, he didn’t say it! Screw two millennia of tradition and the virgin cracklessness of the Book, I go for the truth!”
But if you start cutting the New Testament, where do you stop? What remains? The original Jesus, the Jewish prophet of an imminent apocalypse that did not come? What when what remains is not Christianity, but just one more apocalyptic nut, a one-person Waco in a distant land, and disciples spinning a new religion out of excuses?
Or what when you’re uncertain? What when Paul says one thing… a gospel something else… and the later understanding of a verse is something entirely different than what the writer, with immediate and now long-dead concerns, meant? If you go looking into the New Testament, and it breaks into a hundred points-of-view, a thousand maybe-saids, how do you arrange their precedence? Will it really do to replace our monolith fetishism with a holy confusion?
Maybe it would be the best if some humanistic Christian sect admitted that the New Testament is a terrible muddle and they’re not interested in what truths lie behind it, in what snarls its two millennia have gathered; it’s their foundational fiction, and they’re rebooting it. Then they could just redact the bloody book to be something that doesn’t make a modern moral person feel so icky: something with lady priests and human rights in it, and without all the hell and hegemony.
Not that I’m ever going to see that, but one can dream, right? (Better that than thinking about how idiots believe the damned Brownian motion of the New Testament’s formation apparently brought together an inviolate instrument of God.)